Aspire to Inspire

As a professional athlete, when you look beyond the glory, spotlight, adversity, and accolades, there’s always one constant that remains unavoidable: “retirement from the game you love.” At this very moment, you have to separate ego, notoriety, and the prestigious lifestyle of being a professional athlete to eventually being at peace with whatever happens next. For NBA veteran Dale Ellis, his early retirement centered around an important life decision that was bigger than the game of basketball: his family.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dale Ellis to capture the essence of family, community, and his admiration for his fellow NBA contemporaries. As a bonus I was able to get Dale to share a few memorable stories, featuring Basketball Hall of Famers Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Clyde Drexler, and the late Moses Malone. While he had the pleasure of competing against all of the NBA legends mentioned, the stories he shared span over the 18 years of being away from the game. From Dale’s perspective, “There’s a different level of appreciation and joy when having these personal conversations. As a retired professional athlete, you’ll find yourself in a different space in life, both professionally and personally. As athletes we were constantly competing against one another and once you are retired from the game you can let your guard down and give credit where credit is due. The stories we share among one another in private are the real must-see TV [moments] that most sports enthusiasts would love to hear firsthand.”

NBA veteran Dale Ellis

In 2000, Dale’s final season in the NBA, he was traded to the Miami Heat and then eventually released. The decision served as a blessing in disguise for Dale who was looking to retire a year early. While he had no physical setbacks that would have restricted him from playing another season, he chose his family over returning to basketball. His daughter, Ashley, was entering her senior year of high school and he made up his mind that he wanted to be there for her as a full-time father. As a student-athlete, Ashley excelled in the classroom and was equally talented with the game of tennis. As Dale shared, “In my humble opinion she could have played professional tennis, that’s how good she really was. I wanted to be there for her to cherish her final year at home and do whatever I could to advise and prepare her mentally for college tennis. As I reflect on my decision many years later, it was the right choice and I’m thankful I didn’t waver in my decision to walk away from the game.”

Upon retirement, Dale quickly learned that he was no longer living the NBA life anymore. He reflected on the first few months after retirement, “Once I retired I found myself waking up to a household that was run like a tight ship by my ex-wife, Monique. There was a part of me that wanted to infuse my ideas and ways of handling daily duties and there were moments we’d agree to disagree. It was a wake-up call for me falling out of my normal basketball routine and realizing this would be my everyday world. At that moment in time, it dawned on me that this exact world was happening for years while I was on the road playing basketball in the NBA. The routine and how things were done were etched in stone and here I am newly retired trying to fit into it all. Athletes are truly creatures of habit and just like clockwork, I made sure I got my daily workout in each morning. Yes, I was retired but I wanted to at least stay active because exercise and shooting jump shots in the gym kept my mind clear and made me feel alive. The first six months of retirement went relatively seamlessly with some minor life adjustments. During months 7–12, I found myself saying, I must have lost my damn mind walking away from basketball!” [Dale laughed when sharing that last statement.]

Present day, Dale resides in Marietta, Georgia, with his wife, Daffney, and his youngest son Dale Jr. “DJ”. His daughter, Ashley, earned a master’s degree at USC in professional writing and currently resides in Cape Town, South Africa, where she’s earning her Ph.D. in Film Studies. His middle son, Christian, played college basketball for Wake Forest University, where he graduated with a business degree, and eventually took his professional career overseas; while his oldest son, Nicholas, resides in the Atlanta area and works in the computer software industry.

NBA veteran, Dale Ellis – Hosting the Dale Ellis basketball camp in Hong Kong

As the current president of the Atlanta Chapter for the National Basketball Retired Players Association, Dale has been active in the community and across the globe. Since retiring from the game, Dale has remained active with fundraising for Feed the Hungry, Toys for Tots, the Boys and Girls Club, Shooting for Peace, and other military Goodwill Tours, where he has entertained the troops in Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Iraq. He’s also participated in exhibition games in the continents of Asia, South America, and Europe with fellow NBA Legends including Mitch Richmond, Muggsy Bogues, Gary Payton, and Scottie Pippen to name a few. It’s no secret that Dale is an avid golfer and plays year-round both personally and for charitable causes. Dale expressed, “When most athletes leave the game, they try to stay in the sports’ world through coaching, scouting, or something like broadcasting as a post-career. The reality is, there’s only so many positions and opportunities in that space. For me, I’ll always love the game of basketball but in my present state, I found the importance of giving back to others in other forms of community involvement, fundraising, and teaching our youth with clinics and camps. Taking time out of my life to give back to society is a big part of my continued legacy.”

Los Angeles Clipper, Tobias Harris and NBA veteran, Dale Ellis catching up after a game in Atlanta.

Back in 2010, Dale’s impact as a mentor and private coach crossed paths with future NBA star and University of Tennessee student-athlete, Tobias Harris. Dale recalls, “One summer I was on the University of Tennessee campus and bumped into the head coach at the time, Bruce Pearl, who was with his recruits. Bruce asked me to speak to the guys and introduce myself since I was an alumnus. Shortly after meeting Tobias, I was approached by his father, Torrel Harris. I’ve met Torrel several years prior through Basketball Hall of Famer George “The Iceman” Gervin. He personally asked me to work with his son to get him prepared for the pros. I love helping athletes and took him up on his offer. I would drive 2½ hours from Marietta, GA, to Knoxville, TN, we’d work out for an hour and a half, then he’d go to class, and after we’d put in another hour and a half. We’d go one week on and one week off as a schedule. Tobias was like a sponge with picking up new things and it was a pleasure to work with him. I tried to focus on having him catch the ball and let it go. A signature of New York basketball players is their top-notch ball handling skills. The mentality of most New York players is to catch it and put it on the floor and sometimes over dribble. The high-level goal was retraining his mind to see what’s in front of him, playing to his strengths, and taking advantage of what his opponents give him. I’m proud to see the evolution of his game and wish him nothing but continued success with his NBA career. My former coach Dick Motta said it best, ‘the great players might have only one or two games they can’t get up for.’ We are human and have our good days and off days. Being great has to turn into a lifestyle and a committed mentality. Continue to strive for greatness, Tobias. I’m proud of you.”

When sitting down with Dale, we took a stroll down memory lane from a shared path we have in common. From my time working in the sports industry, there were two major events that brought the alumni of basketball legends together and that was NBA All-Star Weekend, and the National Basketball Retired Players Association summer meeting which normally took place right after the NBA Finals in late June to mid-July. Between both events, there are priceless moments from the outside looking in that embody the themes of reunion, family, and brotherhood. The handshakes, hugs, laughs, stories, and pure happiness you see when the legends get to together is priceless. At the summer meetings, they often had fun activities for the legends like a golf tournament, tennis tournament, and sometimes billiards. Although it’s many years later in life, the competitive side of these professional athletes was in full force regardless of the activity. If one was a photographer or videographer, the hotel lobby or suite where the legends check-in had countless moments of joy and camaraderie that are the hidden gems of the week and/or weekend. Dale shared a few short stories from his career and post-career that embody the bond athletes share for life and memories that stand out in his mind.

“The honor I’m most proud of is returning to the University of Tennessee and earning my bachelor’s degree in Sociology in 1985. At the time, the NBA encouraged the owners to provide an incentive to their players that wanted to return to college to earn their degree. I was one of the rare few that took the league up on this offer and spent two summers at the University of Tennessee. I became the first person in my family to earn a college degree and it was a promise I made to my mother, Lucille because it meant that much to her. The two summer semesters at the University of Tennessee was my hardest achievement to date and just like my natural ability with sports, it proved I can achieve anything I put my mind toward.

“The honor I’m most proud of is returning to the University of Tennessee and earning my bachelors degree in Sociology in 1985.”

“During my playing career when we visited the Los Angeles Lakers, I recall three special moments. The first was standing next to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during my rookie season and realizing, ‘This is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.’ I looked up to him and tried to master his patented skyhook as a kid. For me, that was my ‘you made it to the NBA moment.’ The Los Angeles crowd was filled with celebrity A-listers. It just happened that Jack Nicholson was sitting courtside next to the Mavericks bench and we ended up exchanging pleasantries. While it may seem like a common thing for celebrities to mix and mingle with athletes, as a shy young man growing up, these personal interactions meant everything to me. The fact that Jack knew who I was as a rookie was mind-blowing. The same happened with Denzel Washington, who greeted me when I was coming out of the tunnel after halftime. I’m a huge fan of his work and just the acknowledgment of Denzel saying ‘What’s up, Dale?!’ pumps you up so much that deep down inside you want to try that much harder, to do something extra special to impress them on the court.

“For Basketball Hall of Famer, Clyde Drexler, we caught up on many occasions during All-Star Weekend and it’s funny what we can say to each other now that we are no longer competing against each other. It’s humbling to hear the praise and respect Clyde had for me and I shared the same for him. He joked with me and said, ‘I always thought you were mad; I never saw you smile ever, until now!’ I tried to explain that when I was on the court, it was all business and focus for me. Clyde mentioned to me, ‘thank goodness you didn’t put the ball on the floor more and attack me, I would not have known what to do to contain you.’ These are the types of nuggets we would neither share as active players nor admit. You learn a whole lot about people once you retire from the game. The human persona of us becomes more visible, conversations about family and the good old days, and new endeavors we are involved in are the centerpiece of a typical conversation.

“I had the pleasure of participating in multiple charitable golf tournament events that Basketball Hall of Famer Julius “Dr. J” Erving happened to be a part of as well. There was this one time, we shared a one-hour car service back to the airport and let’s just say the end of the ride was something I still laugh about to this day. At the very beginning before entering the car, there was a back-and-forth exchange between myself and the guy sitting in the front seat. He suggested Julius should sit in the back with me, while I suggested giving Julius the front seat for more leg room. The back and forth had a hidden purpose because the shy side of me was hoping Julius would sit in the front so I could just observe his greatness from afar. But after all the back and forth, Julius ended up in the back with me and we would have a great conversation about life. Little did he know, Dr. J was one of my heroes growing up and like a fan or a kid meeting his hero, I had to tell him that in person during our ride. I even shared a story with him about the first time I met him when I was in college. I asked him, ‘Do you remember meeting me when I was in college? New York Knicks Legend and Basketball Hall of Famer Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier came down to Georgia and introduced me to you, Maurice Cheeks, and Darryl Dawkins. You were in town with the Philadelphia 76ers to play the Atlanta Hawks.’ I used that hour car ride to share my gratitude toward him but also learned so much about him as the person behind the superhero persona of Dr. J. At the end of the ride, Julius said, ‘Dale, why don’t you take down my number and feel free to call me anytime.’ In the past, I would go through Dr. J’s executive assistant to get in touch with him, but here I am getting my hero’s number. He proceeded to give me his mobile number and then said, ‘Okay Dale, repeat it back to me.’ I repeated the number I took down and he said, ‘that’s not it, let me give it to you again.’ I’ll be honest I was a little embarrassed not taking down the right number but that’s just how nervous I was on the inside; although I was trying to play it cool on the outside.

“My number one guy was Basketball Hall of Famer, the late Moses Malone. We were teammates briefly in Milwaukee toward the end of his career and got to know each other since we lived in the same complex. Even at the tail end of his career, he was the hardest working athlete on the team and set a great example for the players to emulate and respect. I looked forward to seeing Moses at NBA All-Star Weekend because I knew he’d get in a day early and I would be able to catch him in the lobby. Moses had a great sense of humor, had great instincts in assessing one’s character and intentions, a master of cracking jokes, and just had this infectious laugh. He privately joked with me about having my son Dale Jr. while in my 50s and shared the same blessing of having his son, Micah, in his 50s as well. I last saw him at All-Star Weekend in New York in 2015. Moses passed away in the fall of 2015 from cardiovascular disease. After his passing, I missed the next two straight All-Star Weekends because the thought of him not being there saddened me. I will always have fond memories of Moses and will keep his family in my thoughts and prayers always.”

L-R: Dale Ellis, Rick Hooks, and Moses Malone at NBA All-Star Weekend 2015 NYC

From knowing Dale as a professional athlete as well as a husband and father, there’s a personal side the world may not be privy to but I was able to capture some of the essences of what family means to Dale, “Family is everything! I don’t see myself ever being alone. As a kid, I was a loner, kept to myself, and had to grow up quickly being one of six children raised primarily by my mother. My mother, Lucille, lost her battle with diabetes in April 2013. I’m grateful for everything she did for us growing up and equally grateful for my wife for her support with taking care of her when my mother’s health was on the decline. It’s a blessing to have my loving wife, Daffney, by my side to keep me inspired and in great spirits. My stepdaughter, Jazmine, is the ultimate go-getter and currently going to school to become a dental hygienist. My son Dale Jr. is truly a gift from God. While having a seven-year-old at this stage in my life is a test of will and patience at times, I couldn’t be happier because I get to cherish every moment of seeing him grow before my eyes. I have the opportunity to raise him to be a better man than me. Thanks to the technology of this generation, there are countless ways to capture these moments and revisit later in life as a family.”

“My mistake as a professional athlete was wanting to be ‘one of the best.’ Looking back at it now, I should have wanted to be the best!. . . “

Dale and Daffney Ellis with their son Dale Jr.

At the end of our sit down I asked Dale to share his final thoughts around his continued legacy to the world and his favorite words of wisdom he enjoys sharing. Dale expressed the following, “I love helping athletes with the game of basketball but, more importantly, teaching life skills and being able to help the next man or woman be a better person than me. It comes down to making the right life choices, learning from others, and understanding that we will all make many mistakes in a lifetime. While we can judge others for things that may have happened in the past, what matters most is what we are doing in the present. My college coach, Don DeVoe, prepared me for the next level. He’d say to us ‘It didn’t matter if you had a good practice, what are you going to bring to the table at the next practice? If you aced a test in the classroom, what are you going to do next to follow up on that great achievement?’ I like to tell people to pour your heart into what you love. For me my primary love is basketball but those glory days are over and my energy is now centered around family and uplifting others I meet around the world. I challenge everyone I meet present day to strive to be the ‘best.’ My mistake as a professional athlete was wanting to be ‘one of the bests.’ Looking back at it now, I should have wanted to be ‘the best’! When you raise the bar in life, the universe will reveal to you everything that’s required of you to achieve and maintain that level of greatness! The only question that remains is are you willing to accept that challenge?”

More about Dale’s athletic career:

Looking back at Dale’s professional career, the game of basketball was his escape from reality and often brought clarity to his life the minute he left the gym from a full workout. He played 17 seasons in the NBA for the Dallas Mavericks, Seattle SuperSonics, Milwaukee Bucks, San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, and Charlotte Hornets. Dale was best known for his lethal sharp shooting touch, serious game face, and tenacity on the defensive end. During his professional career, he was the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 1987, the Three-Point Shooting champ in 1989, and an NBA All-Star in 1989.

His historic collegiate career at the University of Tennessee speaks for itself as a two-time SEC Player of the Year, he led the University of Tennessee to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances, was an All American in 1983, and, in 2010, he was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. On March 1, 2014, the University of Tennessee honored Dale by retiring his #14 Jersey.

More about Drew Stephens

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Photo credit: Kent Harris/S&S (Classics of the Hardwood image used in the lead image)